European and American women in the nineteenth century lived in an age characterized by gender inequality. At the beginning of the century, women enjoyed few of the legal, social, or political rights that are now taken for granted in western countries: they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage, were rarely granted legal custody of their children in cases of divorce, and were barred from institutions of higher education. Women were expected to remain subservient to their fathers and husbands. Their occupational choices were also extremely limited. Middle- and upper-class women generally remained home, caring for their children and running the household. Lower-class women often did work outside the home, but usually as poorly-paid domestic servants or laborers in factories and mills.
The onset of industrialization, urbanization, as well as the growth of the market economy, the middle class, and life expectancies transformed European and American societies and family life. For most of the eighteenth century through the first few decades of the nineteenth century, families worked together, dividing farming duties or work in small-scale family-owned businesses to support themselves. With the rapid mercantile growth, big business, and migration to larger cities after 1830, however, the family home as the center of economic production was gradually replaced with workers who earned their living outside the home. In most instances, men were the primary "breadwinners" and women were expected to stay at home to raise children, to clean, to cook, and to provide a haven for returning husbands. Most scholars agree that the Victorian Age was a time of escalating gender polarization as women were expected to adhere to a rigidly defined sphere of domestic and moral duties, restrictions that women increasingly resisted in the last two-thirds of the century.
Scholarly analysis of nineteenth-century women has included examination of gender roles and resistance on either side of the Atlantic, most often focusing on differences and similarities between the lives of women in the United States, England, and France. While the majority of these studies have concentrated on how white, middle-class women reacted to their assigned domestic or private sphere in the nineteenth century, there has also been interest in the dynamics of gender roles and societal expectations in minority and lower-class communities. Although these studies can be complementary, they also highlight the difficulty of making generalizations about the lives of women from different cultural, racial, economic, and religious backgrounds in a century of steady change.
Where generalizations can be made, however, "the woman question," as it was called in debates of the time, has been seen as a tendency to define the role of women in terms of private domesticity. Most often, depictions of the lives of nineteenth-century women, whether European or American, rich or poor, are portrayed in negative terms, concentrating on their limited sphere of influence compared to that of men from similar backgrounds. In some cases, however, the private sphere of nineteenth-century women had arguably more positive images, defining woman as the more morally refined of the two sexes and therefore the guardian of morality and social cohesion. Women were able to use this more positive image as a means for demanding access to public arenas long denied them, by publicly emphasizing and asserting the need for and benefits of a more "civilized" and "genteel" influence in politics, art, and education.
The same societal transformations that were largely responsible for women's status being defined in terms of domesticity and morality also worked to provoke gender consciousness and reform as the roles assigned women became increasingly at odds with social reality. Women on both sides of the Atlantic, including Angelina and Sarah Grimké, Sarah Josepha Hale, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Frances Power Cobbe, both expressed and influenced the age's expectations for women. Through their novels, letters, essays, articles, pamphlets, and speeches these and other nineteenth-century women portrayed the often conflicting expectations imposed on them by society. These women, along with others, expressed sentiments of countless women who were unable to speak, and brought attention and support to their concerns. Modern critical analyses often focus on the methods used by women to advance their cause while still maintaining their delicate balance of propriety and feminine appeal by not "threatening" men, or the family unit.